Why Amazon, Not iTunes, is the Future of Digital Music
Amazon turned quite a few heads when it announced that it would be entering the music download business by selling MP3s unencumbered by Digital Rights Management (DRM). Now Amazon is raising the stakes even further by offering its download client for Linux, in addition to the existing Mac OS X and Windows clients.
By dint of its openness and multiple platform support, users should really be looking to Amazon -- rather than Apple -- for their digital music needs.
As of last week, Amazon has packaged the MP3 Downloader for several distros, including openSUSE, Fedora, Debian, and Ubuntu. I've verified that the openSUSE client works just fine -- I did a quick test last night, installed the client on my openSUSE 10.3 laptop and bought the latest Nine Inch Nails album(s), Ghosts I-IV.
So why is Amazon's solution head and shoulders above Apple's iTunes or other digital music stores? It's certainly not for cosmetic reasons -- Apple's iTunes provides a much more attractive interface and is a bit more intuitive than the "search on the Web, download through a helper application" model that Amazon is using. Because Amazon isn't controlling the whole stack, it can't provide quite the same kind of convenience that you'll get with iTunes, but it also doesn't provide the same kind of lockdown, so it's a net positive.
Despite its less-than-gorgeous interface, Amazon has my vote for a couple of reasons:
First, Amazon is operating system agnostic. While Apple wants to tie users to Mac OS X (you can use iTunes on Windows too), or at least to the iPod line of media players, Amazon is offering its goods with a universally supported format that's usable by just about anyone with a computer. Want to use an iPod? No problem. Want to use a $30 bargain basement MP3 player? Again, no problem. Try that with iTunes...
Second, all of Amazon's music offerings are DRM-free. This is critically important -- how else can you count on being able to play your music next year, or the year after that, or five years down the road? Other players have been known to move to DRM formats that aren't even compatible with their own legacy products.
Third, it's worth noting that Amazon's offerings are priced slightly less than Apple's (though that's not something you can count on long-term) and you get 256K MP3s for everything, not 128K.
Fourth, Amazon does have a decent selection of artists. Not perfect, a few gaps here and there. For example, Def Leppard isn't on the MP3 Download store, but everything else I tried to find -- from Leonard Cohen, to the Cure, was available.
As a die-hard Linux user, of course I'm happy that Amazon is supporting Linux. But Windows and Mac OS X users should be heartened by this as well. Why? Because it shows that Amazon is willing to support all of the platforms its customers are using -- not just the OS with the most customers. Users of other operating systems can use Amazon's music service without locking themselves into their current platform.
Choosing iTunes now means choosing a platform that's iTunes-compatible in the future, or losing the ability to easily manage your music going forward. While Apple offers some music that's not DRM-encumbered, it's not the entire catalog. Plus, Apple's music format isn't as universally supported as MP3, regardless of whether it's DRMed or not.
Even though many people have gone digital, I've resisted moving away from CDs because of the hassles inherent to using online music stores. Amazon may have finally convinced me to give up the discs and give up physical media entirely.
After several years of experience with DRM, and the annoyances that it adds, I think a lot of music enthusiasts are ready to switch to a provider that's platform neutral and compatible with any music player on the market.
Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier works for Novell as the openSUSE Community Manager.